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From the military to the movies: Adam Driver's incredible journey

There have been many instances of famous actors being in the military. Paul Newman, Harvey Keitel, Morgan Freeman, the list is endless. One of the more recent additions to the list was Adam Driver. This may come as a surprise, but when you think of Driver’s rugged but restrained on-screen and off-screen character, you realise that the Marines played a key part in informing his persona.

A teenage “misfit”, Driver was always keen on acting, and wanted to become an actor, and even applied for New York’s esteemed Julliard School before leaving high school, but was not accepted. This led to Driver having a few years in the wilderness as an odd-jobs man before deciding to join the military fuelled by the fires of rage and “retribution” after the 9/11 attacks. 

He enlisted in the US Marine Corps and was assigned to Weapons Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines working on the mortars. In the army, he found something he wasn’t actively looking for, and it changed his life. The camaraderie he felt there was something that would stay with him for the rest of his life. 

Of his time in the military, he once recalled: “You’re in this high-stakes environment where who you are as a person is constantly tested. And, in my experience, a lot of the people I was closest to in the military were very self-sacrificing. For me, it speaks volumes, more than how well they were able to articulate, or whatever front they were putting on. You get to see them at their most vulnerable and they’re literally going to back you up. All pretences dissolve.”

Driver served for two years and eight months before he was medically discharged due to a sternum fracture he suffered whilst out mountain biking. This horrific accident happened right before his unit was due to be deployed to Iraq, and understandably, this destroyed Driver

Being the tough cookie that he is, he bounced back. Driver decided to go back to school, enrolling in the University of Indianapolis for a year before securing another audition for Julliard, and this time the stars aligned and he was accepted. He found it hard to fit in whilst at Julliard as his classmates viewed him as an intimidating character, the complete antithesis to your average drama school student.

The actor has spoken across his career about his struggles to segue from the military lifestyle to the drama school existence. Regardless, it was at Julliard that he met his future wife Joanne Tucker, and he graduated in 2009.

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It was in New York where Driver’s career really would take off. He started in the theatre with roles on and off-Broadway, supporting himself working as a busboy and waiter on the side. Quickly, he would earn himself roles on TV and in several short films, including the final episode of ABC’s The Unusuals in 2009. Fast forward two years, and in 2011 Driver made his film debut in Clint Eastwood‘s polarising biopic, J. Edgar.

Things would soon take off for Driver. The following year, he was cast in one of his most iconic roles, as Adam Sackler, the volatile boyfriend of protagonist Hannah Horvath in HBO’s Girls. That year he also appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Proving himself to be a versatile actor, this was to be Driver’s decade. 

He then appeared in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013, and the following year he was cast in his true breakthrough role, the emotionally complex villain, Kylo Ren, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After his central role in the Star Wars reboot, he went on an artistic run where he really shone as an actor. 

Having worked with some of the best auteurs in the business, in 2017, he starred in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, and as the brilliant Clyde, the one-armed Iraq veteran in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. Possibly the highlight performance of Logan Lucky, Driver’s character would have been nowhere near as believable if it wasn’t for his experiences in the military. 

He then gave a star turn in Spike Lee’s brilliant BlacKkKlansman in 2018 as Phillip ‘Flip’ Zimmerman, and again, his military training shone through as he dealt with difficult and violent themes. He matched them with a subtle portrayal, a perfect blend of his military life and nature as an actor. In 2019 he also featured in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die and in Marriage Story alongside Scarlett Johansson.

His most recent outings have been Annette and The Last Duel, proving yet another string to his vast bow. Versatile and unable to be pigeonholed, a lot of this can be traced back to Driver’s time in the military. A formative experience, the way he’s able to dissolve pretences and seamlessly fit into any role, regardless of what script is in front of him, is reflective of the time in the military.

An actor, but definitely not an actor in the traditional sense, this against the grain spirit that was instilled in him, has stood his career in good stead. He’s had life experience which a lot of actors haven’t, and that’s the difference. 

Watch Adam Driver’s TED Talk below.